Despite James playing operatic arias and Daisy favoring parlor songs, many people believe that Duke’s musical talents, though not his primary source of ambition, were etched in his DNA, having been decided for him before he was even born. Duke’s first love was baseball. While his parents encouraged his athletic abilities, they also stimulated his musical side, knowing that the talent was there, but just needed to be mined. At the ripe of age seven, Duke began receiving piano lessons from Marietta Clinkscales. Daisy wanted Duke to be a well-rounded young gentleman, so she also made sure that, alongside his piano lessons, he would be taught manners and elegance. As a result of his refined behavior, grace, and the classy way that he dressed, Duke’s friends gave him the affectionate nickname Duke with the belief that a young boy so noble deserved a title. Growing up, Duke dedicated a balanced amount of time to his piano lessons and to baseball. When he entered high school, Duke got his first job selling peanuts at baseball games. Around the same time, his personal love for music began to develop into what would become one of the greatest legacies in American music history. At the age of fifteen, while working another job as a soda jerk, Duke penned his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag.” Duke had yet to learn to read and write music, so this composition was created entirely by ear.
“I would play the ‘Soda Fountain Rag’ as a one-step, two-step, waltz, tango, and fox trot. Listeners never knew it was the same piece. I was established as having my own repertoire” (Ellington 112). Even at a young age, Duke knew how to manipulate his musical talent, a characteristic that would only become more intense as he learned to harness this talent. Surprisingly, Duke found that he enjoyed writing music more than playing the piano. He would often skip his piano lessons to sneak into a poolroom to listen to other pianists. During those many journeys, though, Duke finally discovered the love of piano that his mother had tried to instill in him. Duke would watch and listen to some of the big names in ragtime piano, including Doc Perry, Harvey Brooks, and Claude Hopkins. The more he listened to these great musicians, the easier Duke found to imitate their music. Duke took hold of this desire and set out to become the musician that he continues to be remembered as today. Duke’s formal musical training began soon after his newfound discovery. His high school music teacher gave him private lessons in harmony, and pianist and band leader Doc Perry taught Duke how to read sheet music and present a style of professionalism. With the advice from other well-known pianists, such as Fats Waller and Sidney Bechet, Duke began playing ragtime piano is clubs and cafes throughout Washington, D.C., becoming so attached to his music that he even turned down a scholarship to the Pratt Institute of Brooklyn. Just three months prior to graduating from high school, Duke dropped out of school, ready to take his talent to professional levels, wanting to share his music with the world. Duke put together his first music group in 1917, and they were known as The Duke’s Serenaders. The group played in Washington, D.C. and in many cities of Virginia, performing for embassy parties and private society balls. The success of The Duke’s Serenaders was uncommon in those times given the racial division of society. The social acceptance that was abundant wherever Duke and his musicians played speaks, entertaining African-American and white audiences, speaks loudly of how revered Duke was becoming. Despite his racial background, people of all races were anxious to hear the great Duke behind his piano.